Quincy Brown: Conflicting Narratives

I’m always craving something to eat. My medication keeps me hungry, so I fight against two conflicting narratives: (a) searching for something to fill me up to keep me healthy, and (b) maintaining my weight against the side effects of hunger pangs.

On my best days, I can perform the balancing act between feeling satisfied and fighting the urge to eat. On my best days, I buy fruits and vegetables and other healthy snacks. But on my worst days, I have a love-hate relationship with certain foods. For instance, there are times where I can eat a handful of almonds daily and love them. And then, almost as soon as the almond craving appears, it disappears, and I can’t stand to see another almond. And I’m on to the next food item, and the cycle begins over again. Much to the chagrin of my wife, my love-hate relationship with food leaves a lot of unfinished items in our pantry.

And if that were not enough, there are a few instances where the craving is so strong that I overindulge and eat more than I should. This is often during my weakest moments, especially when I’m under stress, and my ability to balance goes out the window. I crumble, and I crave carbs when I’m exhausted or when I lose my focus or patience. I crave happy foods with empty calories where the serotonin chemical is triggered in my brain, and I am happy, happy, happy. There’s a conflicting narrative going on inside of me. One side says that I must take hunger-inducing medication and eat to satisfy my cravings. And the other side craves carbs because I’m hungry all the time.

If you’ve ever been really hungry, then perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’re dieting or maybe you’re fasting in preparation for a medical procedure. But you’re hungry - really, really hungry - and you’re suffering from the hunger shakes only after twelve hours of fasting! All you can think about is food. In a moment of weakness, a little voice emerges in back of your head and presents a conflicting narrative, encouraging you to go ahead. It’s okay. Take a small handful of chips. No one will know. After all, it’s sort of healthy. It’s reduced salt and reduced fat, baked chips. A small handful can’t hurt. Besides, what is the doctor really going to say?

In our Bible lesson, we find conflicting narratives about the cravings of self-sufficiency, power, and prestige from making unwise decisions. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days. Jesus listens to God’s narrative that says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. But the devil, who is the prince of conflicting narratives that lead to temptation, says: “If you are the Son of God…” that questions, what kind of Messiah are you going to be?

The devil’s first temptation to turn stone to bread is about food cravings and self-sufficiency, and questions: “Will you see your primary role as Messiah to meet physical needs?” The second temptation of receiving “all the kingdoms of the world” is a temptation of power that asks, “Will you try to achieve your purpose by obtaining political and military power?” The third and final temptation of “throwing yourself down from the highest point of the temple” is the temptation of making unwise choices and living recklessly, expecting God to come to the rescue, and asks, “Will you do dazzling, daredevil feats to gain prestige and a following?” With each temptation, Jesus counters the conflicting narrative with God’s narrative of God-dependency during his time of preparation in the wilderness for 40 days.

The wilderness is a place where God meets the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. After rescuing them from Egypt, God led them with a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night through the wilderness. The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar, and it suggests to “speak a word” or “listen,” implying that God speaks to us in the wilderness. The Greek word for wilderness is eremos, which means “a solitary place.” So, the wilderness is a solitary place where God sends people to listen to him. The wilderness is not a place to stay, but a place of testing, listening, learning, and refining.

It is in the wilderness that Jesus encounters a conflicting narrative for 40 days to prepare for his public ministry. And there’s a long history of testing periods in the wilderness with the number 40 throughout the Bible. The wilderness and the number 40 evoke key moments in the history of Israel:

… Noah and the passengers in the Ark watched rain fall for 40 days and 40 nights.

… For 40 years, the nomadic people of God wandered through the wilderness for a time of testing and temptation that led to a new, settled existence in the Promised Land. During those 40 years, Moses spent 40 days on a mountain to receive a new way of living through the covenant of the Ten Commandments.

Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness is parallel to Israel’s temptation in the wilderness.

… The Israelites’ first temptation during their wilderness experience was about cravings, bitterly complaining about food, and God met their cravings with manna from heaven.

… The second temptation was testing God at a place called Massah, because the people complained about a lack of water. God provides them with water from a rock.

… The third temptation was falling down to worship a golden calf at the base of the high mountain of Mt. Sinai, and God gets angry because people are to worship God and God alone.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness follows Israel’s conflicting narratives. The devil offers a storyline of self-sufficiency, power, and living recklessly through unwise choices. But Jesus responds by quoting the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus knows the true source of life and identity and proclaims life is more than food. People must rely on God, who is the one worthy of true worship and service, and God is not to be tested. Jesus’ responses are rooted in a different narrative: he is dependent on God rather than self for physical needs, power, and prestige!

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the 40-day journey toward the cross and empty tomb. This past Wednesday many of us received ashes on our forehead, a mark that can mean many different things. For me, the mark means that I openly acknowledge my struggle with my conflicting narratives. I acknowledge that my life will not always be easy, nor will it always be just as I hoped or dreamed.

What about you? What are the conflicting narratives that you struggle with? If we’re honest, we’ll all admit that Lent is filled with conflicting narratives; it is a challenging period. If you’re like me, most of us like to live a comfortable life and we don’t, I repeat, we don’t like to experience too many difficult challenges. We want nothing but smooth sailing on the sea of life, and we cringe when the storms of life are raging. It’s much easier for me to give up on chocolate and caffeine for Mondays through Saturdays (because on Sundays it doesn’t count) than it is for me to make a lifestyle change. But if we are open to the Spirit’s moving and leading, if we’re open to listening to God, we might be surprised to see where God shows up to send us, even if it’s in the wilderness.

As we begin this Lenten journey, we are challenged to live in the wilderness, to sit in the unpredictable presence of God to listen and pay attention.

I still struggle with fighting the side effects of medication that keeps me hungry, satisfying my cravings, eating healthy, and losing weight. The temptation of conflicting narratives are all around us. We will walk all through the wilderness, and when we do, we are not alone. We are not alone to face the troubles and fears and the heartbreaks and the temptations of our world.

Because of Jesus’ wilderness experience, when we’re tempted by the devil, we are never alone. God is with us, and we don’t live by bread alone. We worship God, and God only. And we don’t put God to the test!